Time moves on, events arrive in a digital blizzard, memories are short. Some events though remain laser etched on the consciousness. A visit to the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington still has the power to shock. Approaching Grenfell Tower where 72 people lost their lives – now covered with a graphic green heart visible at the top from miles around – it isn’t hard to detect the community’s collective emotions. A Justice4Grenfell banner hangs from a balcony above the local Co-Op store a short walk away. Draw closer and the sentiments become ever-more raw. Pinned on railings that mark the outside of the estate, a handmade sign says baldly: “Why do we the working classes have to suffer again?”. Around the corner are a row of green cards on which are printed in black ink the names of those who lost their lives. On each one, it says simply but effectively ‘RIP’. Underneath is a series of teddy bears – a stark reminder that many of the victims were children.
The site induces a complex tapestry of emotions. A profound sense of sorrow is the most obvious, but this is mixed with disbelief that half a century after a man landed on the moon, Western democracies remain incapable of housing their population safely. The mind wanders back to other disasters that claimed predominantly working class lives and were wholly preventible – Aberfan, Bradford, Hillsborough, the list is too long.
And there’s a hint of anger too, alongside guilt, that nearly two and a half years on it still feels like I’m intruding on a private grief, albeit in the most public of settings. Beyond the appalling loss of life there’s a wider story - Grenfell is a searing symbol of successive governments’ failure to produce a coherent housing policy. It seems remarkable to imagine now, as our MPs fumble in Parliament, that after the Second World War the state was capable of rebuilding a nation. As John Boughton says in his masterly book ‘The Rise and Fall of Council Housing’, providing suitable homes was considered such an important issue that when Patrick Abercrombie published the ‘County of London Plan’ with JH Forshaw in 1943, British Prisoners of War held in Stalag Luft III (the site of the fabled Great Escape) called a special meeting to discuss it: ‘“When these PoWs weren’t planing their own great escape, they were planning Britain’s escape from its benighted past”, he writes.
These were necessarily idealistic times of course. For Nye Bevan, Minister for Heath and Housing in the Labour government after the war, the housing programme he led was going to create a new society. They were going to be houses that everyone, regardless of class, would aspire to live in. “We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”, he famously opined. To this end, he built high quality and well designed homes, but at a rate that was too slow for the electorate (although the 190,368 new homes he created in 1948 alone is hugely impressive by today’s standards).
“We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”
Bevan’s idealism was replaced by Harold McMillan’s pragmatism in the Conservative’s 1951 election victory. And, while there was still a strong sense that it was the government’s duty to provide homes for the nation, the Tories always felt that council housing should be the preserve of society’s least affluent – as a result of this, and the desire to build more rapidly, quality and design standards dropped. Mistakes were made. In 1968 a gas explosion that killed four people at the poorly built Ronan Point in Newham summed up the ‘build them cheap, pile them high’ philosophy. The chance to develop Bevan’s vision of genuinely mixed communities was lost. Inexorably a stigma grew around council housing that was only fertilised by Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberalism.
Right to Buy, introduced in 1980, was a cornerstone of her government’s policy, allowing tenants who had lived in their homes for more than three years to buy it from the council at 33% discount on the market value, increasing in stages up to 50% for a tenancy of 20 years. By 2012 it is believed that 1.88 million homes had been sold through the scheme; meanwhile only 345,000 had been built in their stead. It has led to a situation in London, for instance, where ‘affordable housing’ – or property that cost no more than 80% of the average local market rent – is out of reach for huge swathes of the population. The writer Anna Minton has pointed out that “only a paradigm shift in British housing policy will be able to address the housing crisis and the failure to provide homes Londoners can afford”.
While it may not be the transformation that Minton demands, there are some tiny signs that things could change. Norwich - a city that has become closely associated in many people’s minds with Steve Coogan’s comic creation Alan Partridge - might not be obvious place to search for revolution, but it has a history of building social housing. Goldsmith Street, designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, is a development that features 105 low-energy homes and was the worthy winner of this year’s Stirling Prize. Best of all, they were built by the City Council. The new scheme has generated so much interest that the local authority is apparently planning regular tours in an attempt to avoid inquisitive visitors with cameras invading the local inhabitants space. These are homes that appear to channel the spirit of Bevan, while at the same time lifting the fug of media and political antipathy that has surrounded social housing for so long.
I’m not so naive to think that we’re about to experience a post-war renaissance in state-owned housing, or that the best architects will want to work for local authorities as they did when bodies like the LCC were in their prime. What is beyond doubt though is that city and town centres across the nation are in a state of flux; with high streets full of boarded up shops while we increasingly shop online. As we attempt to find ways of solving the housing crisis that years of intransigent government has created, there needs to be some acceptance that the market cannot be solely relied upon. Well built, well designed council houses need to be an essential part of the mix. It seems to me that in a supposedly mature society, a safe and secure place for everyone to live is the least we should expect.